Last summer, a mumps outbreak in Texas immigration detention centers quickly surged through the system, sickening almost 1,000 migrants in 57 facilities across the country.

An entire wing of the York County Prison was quarantined for two months to defend against a virus that can spread person-to-person before symptoms appear.

Now, people familiar with Pennsylvania detention centers fear that the coronavirus could make the 2019 mumps epidemic look like a summer cold.

They’re afraid a bloom would infect migrants and staff, then spread from staff members to their families, and from there to the wider community.

“I’m concerned for my clients. I’m concerned for myself. I’m concerned for the workers,” said Bridget Cambria, who is constantly inside the Berks County detention center as director of ALDEA – The People’s Justice Center. “Everyone who is making the choice to keep them in this petri dish doesn’t have to go there.”

Activists from Shut Down Berks have demanded that Gov. Tom Wolf issue an emergency removal order and close the facility amid rising COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania. If it’s unsafe for people to work in the state Capitol complex in Harrisburg, the coalition said, it’s unsafe for families to be in detention.

An exterior view of the detention center, formally known as the Berks Family Residential Center, in Leesport, Pa.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
An exterior view of the detention center, formally known as the Berks Family Residential Center, in Leesport, Pa.

The Wolf administration said its position remains that the federal government should close the center.

“We have already stated that the Wolf administration cannot unilaterally shut down this facility without [an] immediate threat to health and safety,” said Ali Fogarty, spokesperson for the Department of Human Services. “We both operate and license many facilities across the commonwealth, and DHS will continue to follow the guidance of public-health professionals and take any action necessary to protect residents, workers and the public.”

Three advocacy groups filed a lawsuit on Saturday that asks the federal courts to order the immediate removal of parents and children in Berks and at the nation’s two other family-detention centers, both in Texas. Families inside are terrified of catching COVID-19, the suit said.

In Pennsylvania, undocumented migrants are confined in Clinton County, Pike County, York County and Berks County, which is one of the nation’s three detention centers for families. The 96-bed lockup in Leesport, about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is run by Berks County under a federal contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It’s staffed by 59 county employees, and today holds about 40 migrant adults and children, the youngest a 6-month-old girl. All are in the early stages of pursuing asylum, a legal means of staying in the United States.

None has a criminal history. Cambria noted that ICE, at its discretion, could release everyone there into the care of family members in the U.S., maintaining control through monitoring devices.

ICE announced it will temporarily delay some enforcement around the country, but not for migrants who have committed crimes or are deemed dangerous. It’s unclear what that means for Berks.

Even as the coronavirus shut down schools and businesses, migrants from different countries continued to be brought to Berks from around the country.

At Berks, families sleep six to a room, the beds nearly touching. Sometimes fathers must room with other fathers.

About 40,000 people are held in detention centers, which have been criticized for failing to provide even routine medical treatment.

Meanwhile, lawyers around the country are petitioning courts and ICE leaders to release immigrants with underlying health issues.

“There is no other option but to release as many detainees as possible immediately,” said Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Houston Law Center. Detention is intended to be civil in nature, not punitive, but confining people during a pandemic may be just that, he said.

Bridget Cambria, the director of ALDEA, in front of her office in Reading, routinely goes in and out of the Berks detention center to represent clients inside.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Bridget Cambria, the director of ALDEA, in front of her office in Reading, routinely goes in and out of the Berks detention center to represent clients inside.

Pennsylvania immigration lawyer Juliette Gomez said one client had already been sick with respiratory issues when ICE took him into custody at a Scranton hospital, then placed him in detention at the Pike County Correctional Facility.

Soon he phoned his wife: He had suffered a breathing attack and felt as if he were drowning, as if he were going to die.

The incident began at the Scranton federal courthouse, where her client, an undocumented Honduran man she declined to identify, was to be sentenced March 12 for having reentered the country after having been deported.

ICE officials said agents went there intending to arrest the man after sentencing.

Before the hearing started, the man began to have trouble breathing, and was taken by ambulance to the Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton. Agents followed the ambulance to the hospital, Gomez said, and waited outside the treatment room to handcuff her client.

Gomez said ICE violated its own “sensitive locations” policy, which dissuades agents from making arrests at hospitals, churches, and schools, except in extraordinary circumstances.

“These policies exist for a reason, and it’s not just for the well-being of the person being taken into detention,” Gomez said. “You’re telling everyone in the hospital that they can’t go there anymore, safely, that there’s no place off limits.”

ICE officials said there was no policy violation, that the arrest began at the courthouse, and what followed was a continuation of that process.

The hospital said it could not discuss the man’s situation because of privacy rules, but never asks about immigration status nor notifies ICE that a patient is undocumented.

The Berks center has suspended visitation amid the pandemic. Efforts to contact county officials were unsuccessful.

Banning visitors there and elsewhere “is insufficient to protect the detained population, because the staff of the detention facility are allowed to go in and out,” said North Carolina lawyer Jeremy McKinney, second vice president of the national American Immigration Lawyers Association. “The risk of this spreading in the detained population remains high.”

Cambria said the only thing coronavirus has changed inside of Berks is that lawyers must wash their hands before entering and there’s a new hand-sanitizer dispenser.

A couple of weeks ago, she said, every child was sick, with fevers, sore throats, and congestion. Now, coronavirus threatens all.

“Every one of these families should leave now, in an orderly way,” she said. “If somebody gets sick, everyone is stuck there.”